The violent and tragic incidents in Charlottesville, Virginia, are a wake-up call for Canadians. The original demonstration was first organized around a cause likely to be divisive in that state and to attract strong emotional reactions: a proposal to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee, a General of the Confederacy in the American Civil War and traditionally considered a hero to some in the South.
As the demonstration developed, it was soon clear that the organizers were using this issue as a tool to attract those who promote the agenda of white supremacy and neo-Nazism. This is an oft-used tactic among racists and hatemongers – to tie their cause to an emotionally and politically divisive issue that they think has popular support.
Amid the political uncertainty created by civic, state and national leaders as to what was at stake – the chance of violence was made almost certain. What could have been done to lessen the likelihood of what did in fact occur: mob violence, a terrorist attack and the tragic loss of life of a demonstrator and two police officers?
Canadians need to examine what can be done in light of reports in Canada’s media indicating that similar demonstrations around issues with populist appeal are being planned for Canada. Those populist causes could vary from debates over religion, free speech and immigration policy, to the status of Indigenous Peoples.
The first lesson from Charlottesville is to be clear about who is organizing the demonstrations and the nature of their agenda. This is something that has to be understood clearly by political leaders at all levels and by police.
Second, it is important to clearly express the stakes: upholding the law - no promotion of hatred, no violence, following police directives. If these conditions cannot be met, there should be no demonstration allowed. There are those who have argued that regardless of whether the groups uphold the law, they should not be granted a venue/platform, etc., often citing security concerns as the issue.
The third lesson is one that should be learned by all, including the media: eschew extremist and violent rhetoric. Some commentators in Canada have already understood the need to cool the ugly tone and incendiary language that has been used to make their political points. More should do so, regardless of their political perspectives.
Finally, we need a long term strategy for addressing issues that are divisive - a way that keeps racism and hatred out of the equation, through open discussion and appropriate education at all levels. As Canadians, we can and must lead the way in finding peaceful and effective methods of handling diverse opinions in the public sphere and not be drawn into street fighting and violence by those who espouse hatred. We have much about which to be proud, and this is an ideal opportunity to demonstrate our strength and our shared values for a fair and just civil society.
Watch for our CRRF information/ discussion paper on hate crimes which is currently under review and will be available in the near future on our website.
For further information on CRRF activities and curricula to promote positive race relations and deal with racism, please visit our website at www.crrf-fcrr.ca or contact CRRF by e-mail at or by telephone at 416 441 1900 or 1 888 240 4936.